Backpacking is simply self contained travel. In other words, if you need it you are carrying it on your back. This includes clothing, food, equipment, and shelter. Articles in this category focus on topics to help you enjoy and travel safely in the wilderness.
Poor Bob Wallace, the 88 year old inventor of Polar Pure. Bob has been making, packaging and distributing Polar Pure, a crystal iodine based water purification solution, since 1983. I was first exposed to Polar Pure in 2000 when my son and I joined local boy scout troop 916. Polar Pure was the troop’s standard solution for wilderness water purification. A small bottle of Bob’s magic crystals was light to carry, never expired, and could treat over 2,000 quarts of water.
Working from his garage in Saratoga California, Bob became a folk hero to backpackers, outdoor enthusiasts, and natural disaster victims everywhere. His product, which has prevented countless cases of the runs, is now facing its own legal case of the runs from the US Drug Enforcement Agency.
We are currently in the process of new permitting requirements and are unable to ship Polar Pure at this time. We do not know how long this process will take or what the outcome will be – this is dependent on the governmental agencies involved.
So what did Polar Equipment do to warrant this unwelcome attention from the DEA. Nothing. The problem is that criminals might be purchasing and using his product in their illicit meth labs. Bob has been declared merely collateral damage by the DEA. According to the San Jose Mercury News:
“Methamphetamine is an insidious drug that causes enormous collateral damage,” wrote Barbara Carreno, a DEA spokeswoman. “If Mr. Wallace is no longer in business he has perhaps become part of that collateral damage, for it was not a result of DEA regulations, but rather the selfish actions of criminal opportunists. Individuals that readily sacrifice human lives for money.”
I doubt too many people are sticking up for rights of the meth labs, but what about the backpackers, outdoor enthusiasts, and natural disaster victims? What about Bob? Are we really willing to accept shutting down a product and destroying a career and company simply because the product might be used in an illegal manner? Seriously?
I am pretty sure Polar Pure could be transported to meth labs in cars. We should probably do something about that. And aren’t these meth labs usually in peoples homes? Seems like another opportunity for improvement. Since DEA spokeswoman Barbara Carreno seems quite content accepting collateral damage, I suggest we start by taking possession of both her car and her home. After all, it would all be in the name of fighting the potential of a future crime.
Or perhaps that logic is pure malarky. Or in poor Bob’s case, Polar Pure malarky.
When I come upon a bird I don’t recognize, it flutters in and out of my consciousness with very little impact. I make no emotional connection other than to notice: a bird. However when I come upon an old friend, a bird I recognize and know, the reaction is completely different.
Ah look, a little nut hatch. One of those amazing acrobats who can forage through trees upside down. I remember the time my kids, using sunflower seeds, coaxed one to land on my wife’s back as she slept on a lounge chair.
The same thing happens to me with trees. When I see one I do not know it is nothing more than a big stick with leaves. But when it is one I know I experience a connection.
Oh look, a Jeffery Pine. The one with gentle pine cones that don’t prick you like the Ponderous cones and if you stick your nose right into the bark it smell’s like vanilla. I remember showing my kids how to to that, and they still do it today.
Crazy as it sounds I feel the same way about trails. Most of us walk on them without really ever noticing them. With limited knowledge of the art and science of trail making we miss an opportunity for a connection, not only to the trail, but to the people who poured their sweat into it its creation. I suppose on the one hand our lack of noticing is a validation of good design. If and when we notice, it is usually for the wrong reasons: massive ruts, standing water, washboard surfaces, or collapsed switchbacks.
So what makes a great trail?
Some of it comes down to simple things; things that don’t require new knowledge or insights; things like:
Is this trail going where I want to go?
Is the trail through an area I find aesthetically pleasing?
Is the trail appropriate for my skill level and mode of transportation?
There is also, however, an entire language of trail design and maintenance. Knowing some of these terms can raise our consciousness. You are probably well familiar with some, such as switch back. Used in a sentence: Oh no, not another switch back. But what about other terms like grade reversal, kick, slough or partial bench. They are all a part of the language and science of trail design.
Design science is required to make trails low maintenance. What is it that conspires against a trail? Erosion – from wind, and walking, and critters, and water… but mostly water. Water is the true enemy of the trail.
To know a trail is to know the water. Where does it come from? Where does it go? What can we do to keep it off the trail? Water is like a lazy person, it takes the path of least resistance. The goal of the trail designer is to make sure that path of least resistance is not path of the trail.
Tread is the part of the trail you travel on.
Slough is the stuff that collapses down on the tread.
Berm is the build up on the downhill side of the trail
Trail creep is what occurs when the slough is not removed, encouraging the traveler to walk closer to the down slope. Unless corrected, over time the trail has a tendency to creep down hill. If the berm is not removed and the trail’s proper out-slope maintained, water will be trapped and travel down the trail. A trail that becomes a river will experience significant rutting and erosion.
When rainfall saturates the ground it travels down the hill in sheets, known as sheetflow. A good trail design, using outward sloping, will encourage the water to quickly flow across the trail in sheets, and not alter its course to join the trail.
One technique to encourage sheet flow rather than trail flow is the half rule (made popular by the International Mountain Biking Association). The half rule states that the slope of the trail should be no more than half the side slope. So if a hill is sloping at 16%, a trail crossing the hill should be sloped no more than 8%. When a trail is sloped with a grade similar to the hill, it is known as a fall line trail. Fall line trails are most susceptible to water erosion because they are almost always the path of least resistance, at least for water.
10 Percent Rule
There is a practical limit to the slope of a trail, and most designers will suggest that it should not exceed 10 percent. So even if the half rule allows for more (a side slope of 30% would allow an trail slope of 15%) it’s probably not a good idea.
Another technique for keeping water off a trail is a grade reversal. A grade reversal is a temporary reversing of the trail slope. On a downhill trail there is a short uphill portion, before continuing down. If you are coming the other way on the trail, the opposite is experienced; on an uphill trail there is a short down hill section, before continuing uphill. Designed well, a grade reversal will seem completely natural, nothing more than matching the rolling contour of the surroundings. Rest assured, however, that trail designers take particular care in looking for and creating opportunities for these rolling grade reversals. Not only are they aesthetically pleasing, they force the water, which only travels down hill, off the trail during these anti-gravity portions.
Oh so long ago, when I was a young scout, we occasionally did trail maintenance work. At that time one of the key techniques for moving water off a trail was a water bar. The idea was to create an obstacle on the trail which diverted the water off. The obstacle might be a log, a row of rocks, or even a built up berm of dirt. The problem with most water bars is that they are not built at the correct angle. When water rushing down a trail hits a bar causing a sharp redirection, it often deposits the sediment it is carrying. This sediment builds up and eventually spoils the bar, allowing future water to overflow it. It turns out that in most cases a water bar is not a very good low maintenance solution. Thinking back on all the probably completely incorrect water bars I helped create, I could just, well, kick myself.
Standing water is also a significant problem on a trail. Not only does it create the potential for a muddy bog, it also encourages traffic to step around the mess, widening the trail and the size of the mess. It is actually better for a trail if you walk right through a puddle rather than around, but not many do.
A kick is a technique to create a slopped exit for the water from a puddle prone area. Well designed, it is a subtle large dug out semi-circle, with significant enough drainage slope for the water, but not so significant it trips the traveler.
When a trail is cut into a slope, it can be with a full or partial bench. If the tail is built with a combination of removing dirt from the uphill side, and re-using that dirt to build up the downhill side, the results is a partial bench trail. In theory it takes less work to create, but results in a less stable and sustainable tread.
In the full bench tread the dirt is removed until the trail has the appropriate out-slope, and does not require artificially building up the downhill side. More digging and removing of dirt is required, but the end result is a much more stable and sustainable tread. Most trails created now use a full bench approach.
In areas where the ground is particularly susceptible to erosion, rocks may be used as reinforcement. Examples include creek crossings, switchbacks, or trails on extremely steep side slopes. A tremendous amount of manual labor goes into these stone jigsaw puzzles. If only as an excuse to rest, occasionally stop to admire this amazing work.
Travelers do not always stay on the trail. Some land managers see these creative travelers as the problem, some travelers see the trail designer as the problem. When a trail meets the needs and expectations of the travelers, they tend to trod on the tread. However, a poorly designed trail will encourage travelers to find their own path. This may be a perceived minor improvement, a short cut or slight re-routing. Or it may be the creation of a entirely new trail. These user created trails and routes are often called social trails.
Well designed trails subtly prevent this socialization. If travelers can see far ahead, and the trail seems the most logical route, they will stay the trail. If they can see a better way, a shorter or easier path, they will be tempted to alter the course. Switch backs are common areas where a short cut is tempting. By limiting sight lines to the trail ahead, and by intentionally routing switch backs around obstacles, such as rock outcrops and trees, the short cut becomes less alluring.
Even a well designed trail requires maintenance. Crews of workers, paid and volunteer, are required. With a raised consciousness of trail maintenance you can help by spotting and correcting minor problem in the field. Or at a minimum, you should know enough not make them worse.
Great source of trail design and maintenance information:
U. S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration: Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook:
Analogies can be dangerous, especially mine. I love the simplicity and clarity they purportedly provide, but must confess when pressed they usually degrade into pretentious gibberish. Again, especially mine. At the risk of gibber-dome, I offer this example:
Fishing is a religion, and there are atheists, agnostics, and believers.
Fish atheists are clear in their belief: They simply do not believe in fishing. The reason may vary. It may be derived from personal moral standards of life, death, and torture; it may be based on environmental concern for the unnecessary consumption of limited resources; or it may be philosophically rooted in a constitutional desire for the separation of fish and man. Some fish atheists are extremely helpful in their communications. As an example, raise a question on any backpacking forum about the best places to catch fish and you will most likely find yourself receiving a very thorough analysis of your moral fiber and detailed recommendations on how to reposition your head from its current location.
Fish agnostics are not nearly as clear thinking as the atheists. In fact, you might question whether they are committed to a cause at all. They probably do not fish, or if they do it is a form of social fishing, simply to be polite. Fish agnostics are easily distracted. For example they may prefer actually sleeping to fishing, something completely unfathomable to the true fish believers. When pressed you may find a fish agnostics secretly hoping for the fish to escape, not on moral grounds like a fish atheist, but rather to avoid the whole unpleasantness of gutting and cleaning.
Fish believers are active participants in the epic battle of man versus wild. Human intellect, advanced technology, and years of honed specialized skills versus, well… a fish. Okay, but not just a fish. The fish is merely symbolic of our greater battle against adversity, our ability to face potential death from starvation with confidence in our own self reliance. The fish allegory could easily be replaced by one of say a small rodent, but clearly not as tasty and frankly harder to catch. True fish believers acknowledge a higher power, a provider of sorts, which makes available the bounty for our harvest, assuming of course we paid for and are carrying the proper fish and game license.
In the Tasting
The proof of the pudding is in the tasting and I think it is clear I have provided an insightful bowl of instant. Regardless of your status as a fish atheist, agnostic, or believer, I think you all will agree with my original premise… my analogies are in fact pretentious gibberish.
The subject of food can be very complicated, or it can be fairly simple. It depends on what you are trying to achieve and how scientific you want to be.
Your daily caloric burn will fluctuate based on a variety of factors. According to the side of a box of cereal, US recommended daily allowances are based on an intake of 2,000 calories. While outdoor trekking your burn rate may be significantly higher depending on the the weight you are carrying, the distance you are carrying it and difficulty of the terrain you are carrying it over. A typical range for a summer trek may be 3,000 – 4,000 calories per day; for winter it may be closer to 4,000-6,000 calories per day.
For sake of argument, and we do like to argue, let’s assume a summer time daily burn of 3,500 calories. If your goal is to gain weight on the trek, you’ll have to carry more than 3,500 per day. If you are willing to lose some weight, you can go for a under 3,500 a day. The longer your trip, the more these daily loads of calories pile up and compete for your pack’s capacity for weight and space.
Food comes in some fairly standard forms: Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats. You may have determined, from your own experience or through consultation with your doctor, what you believe the optimal balance is. Recommendations vary widely. Here is a sample of some I have recently seen:
Carbohydrates 60 % 50% 50% 40%
Proteins 25% 35% 27% 30%
Fats 15% 15% 23% 30%
If you don’t like these numbers, keep looking. You can pretty much always find someone recommending whatever you want.
You may find, however, that your opinion regarding optimal distribution while outdoor trekking may be different than your normal optimal distribution. Frankly, the difference comes down our old friends weight and bulk.
So how much does a calorie weigh?
It depends on the source of the calorie.
1 calorie of Carbohydrate = .25 grams
1 calorie of Protein = .25 grams
1 calorie of Fat = .11 grams
1 pound = 453.6 grams
Using these guidelines, to get to our target of 3,500 calories per day would require:
Many of us have been taught to think that fat is bad, but in terms of calories to weight efficiency, fat is awesome.
Most foods we carry are not pure forms of carbohydrates, proteins or fats. They are usually a mixture of the three, and probably also contain water and fiber, which add weight but not calories. Food labels are a great way to help you compare energy to weight efficiencies.
Calories Per Ounce
Using some basic food items I had in my house, I calculated the calories per ounce using the following formula: grams per serving * .03527 = ounces per serving; calories per serving / ounces per serving = calories/ounce.
2 lbs requires an average of 109.4 calories / ounce
1.5 lbs requires an average of 145.8 calories / ounce
1.0 lbs requires an average of 218.7 calories / ounce
Some backpackers take great care to figure out the calories per ounce of every food item they carry and create elaborate spreadsheets to track and balance the distribution by day, by meal and by category (carbohydrates, proteins and fats). How retentive you get in your approach is probably driven by how close to the limit of your weight and bulk capacity your trip plan is pushing you. For example:
If you are relatively healthy and traveling on a short weekend trip you pretty much have all the weight and bulk flexibility you need. You can still attempt to minimize weight by optimizing calories per ounce, but you risk giving up some significant food pleasure in the process. Unless you are practicing for some future longer ultra-light trip, enjoy yourself. Go ahead, throw in that subway sandwich, that fresh avocado, that box of Pop-tarts, that entire loaf of garlic bread, or whatever floats your boat.
As your trip plans get longer, however, weight and bulk do become more important. A 3-5 day trip may require that you start thinking about getting your pounds of food per person per day back closer to 1.5 lbs. As you can see from the above calculations, you are not going to be able to do that with just dried fruit and Raman.
If you push up the mileage and days of duration, you are probably going to have to take a serious look at ultra-light backpacking, where it is not uncommon to target closer to 1 lb per person per day.
To get to this level of efficiency takes some serious planning and calculation, not only by increasing the fat content in your food, but by optimizing in every area. For example, if you carry foods that do not need to be cooked, you can save on the weight of stoves, fuel and pots. Carry a lighter tent and a lighter bag, and you will burn fewer calories and therefore need less food to replenish.
Whatever your food strategy, paying closer attention to calories per ounce can be eye opening. Clarified butter, oil, peanut butter and Nutella just may move up a notch on your food chain.
It is not unusual for people new to outdoor trekking to innocently ask:
What should I bring?
Even experienced trekkers are likely to stumble before this open-ended totally-depends how-much-time-do-you-really-have question. The requester probably just wants a simple check list of gear and yet there is so much more. What should I bring? may trigger:
Less than you think.
Why, what do you have?
Where are you going?
How long are you going?
How do you satisfactorily respond to a questions whose only answer is: it depends? Rather than providing the definitive list you find yourself discussing all the conscious and unconscious tradeoffs that come with that one word depends. Every item chosen potentially pushes another worthy item out.
Certainly we can put in a another day’s supply of food. Would you like to get rid of the rain fly or the first aid kit? I think fishing gear is a great idea. Should we get rid of your book or your camera?
Yes there are a variety of gear lists which can and should be shared. They represent the collective experience, priorities, and previous decisions of those providing you the list. To widen your access to wisdom you may want to examine multiple lists, looking for common themes and priorities that align with your own.
I once knew a guy who always carried a huge D-battery Maglite. Yes the same one the police carry and can use as a riot stick to take down a three hundred pound drunk. When I asked how he could justify carrying such a heavy and bulky light his answer was simple.
I am responsible for the safety of the youth I lead on these wilderness outings and we spend half our time in the dark. If something seriously goes wrong, I am not going to be depending on some stupid little pen light.
I am not suggesting that we all should carry monster Maglites, but I do appreciate his passion and the clarity of his priorities.
Here are some basic rules of thumb which illustrate the problem.
Weight: Target Backpack Weight = 25% to 30% of your body weight.
If you weigh 150 lbs, your loaded pack should weigh between 37.5 lbs and 45 lbs. If you are a 13 year old boy weighing all of 90 lbs soaking wet, your loaded pack should only weigh between 22.5 lbs and 27 lbs.
Bulk: Even if you can manage the weight, the size of your backpack will determine the volume of space you have.
Small Pack (40-50 Liters – 1 to 2 Nights)
Medium Pack (50-65 Liters – 3 to 5 Nights)
Large Pack (65-80 Liters – 5+ Nights)
To manage the weight and the bulk some pretty tough priority decisions are going to have to be made.
Outdoor Hierarchy of Needs
One way to start considering your own priorities is to think in terms of a hierarchy of needs. Your needs may vary, but mine goes pretty much like this:
Setting the word depends aside for a moment, there is an expression that is at least illustratively true:
You can go 3 minutes without air, 3 days without water, and 3 weeks without food.
Clearly the need for air is more immediate than the need for food, and the need for shelter is more immediate than the need for luxury.
When traveling in the wilderness, you are likely to find a readily available supply of high quality air. However, for those with asthma or serious allergies, accessing it may become an issue. Make sure medication, inhalers and Epi-pens are being carried by those who may need them, and that everyone else on the trip knows where they are and how to administer them.
Unless you are going on an extremely short trek, you will not be carrying as much water as you need. This means in addition to the couple of quarts per person you are carrying, you need to be carrying a way to purify additional water. This may be by boiling, filtering, chemically treating, or zapping with a ultraviolet light.
Participating in high adventure activities you may burn between 3,000 – 5,000 calories per day. How you replenish these calories will be up to you. What you ultimately select will have an impact on weight and bulk, but you should probably count on somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.5 to 2 lbs of food per person per day. Some ultra light backpackers target 1 lb per person per day. To get 3000K in 1 lb of food takes some creativity, and a frankly a fair amount of fat.
Keeping dry and warm is critical to your health and well being. How you provide that to your body can be thought of as shelter. Proper clothing and rain gear may play a part, but most people think of shelter as where they will sleep. This will include choices about tarps, insulation pads, sleeping bags, and tents. In survival or primitive situations, it may mean snow caves or debris piles.
Support items are the things that help you provide the “higher up” hierarchy needs. It might be things like first aid kits, utility knives, cooking stoves or pots and pans. Depending on what you pick for the higher items will increase or decrease what you need for support.
You may think that by the time you care for all the other hierarchy needs there will be no room for luxury. But don’t forget that even on the TV show Survivor contestants were allowed to bring one luxury item. Depending on how you have done in the other categories will determine how much weight and bulk you can allocate. It may be a simple as a deck of playing cards, a small Frisbee, a paperback book, fishing tackle, or that plastic coffee press. Enjoying yourself in the wilderness is the reason you go, and if there are items that will greatly enhance your pleasure they are worth figuring out how to bring along.
Bull’s Eye Packing
There are a variety of factors, conscious or unconscious, which help us determine if we include or exclude a particular item from our packing list. In many cases, there is a tradeoff inter-dependency between the criteria. For example, the heavy pot may be less expensive than the lighter pot. The bulky sleeping bag may be less expensive than the highly compressible one.
Our goal is to find the holy grail. To find those items which meet all of our criteria, putting them smack dab in middle: the bull’s eye items.
Criteria Based Examples
Although you will probably never get this mathematical or anal retentive in your approach, looking at a few examples may help illustrate the mental process. I will score each item 1 to 3, with 3 being the most positive score, and 1 being the most negative. In other words, high value would score 3 (excellent) , but high weight would score 1 (poor).
1 = poor, 2=good, 3=excellent
Using water treatment as an example, boiling scores high for value because it is very effective, even against viruses. It scores low on convenience because you either have to be at camp or set up a stove along the trail. Chemical treatment is very inexpensive, light and not bulky, but the taste is absolutely awful. Pleasure scores very poor.
Blue Jeans are inexpensive, especially considering you probably already have several pairs sitting around at home. Denim however is bulky and heavy, a poor insulator, and gets even worse when wet. Denim take forever to dry. Hiking pants are light, compact, and dry quickly.
For each item you are considering on your personal gear list, make sure you test them against these basic criteria.
Playing Nice With Others
One often overlooked aspect of packing is group gear. More times than I can count, inexperienced backpackers have shown up with completely full packs, and no room for group gear. How much room each person will need for group gear depends on your groups gear strategy. Are you sharing everything except clothes and personal items? Are you sharing food, stoves, pots, pans, pumps, shelters? Depending on the strategy, each person may need from between 40-60% of their load capacity for group gear.
When traveling in the wilderness, you are probably not going to be carrying a lot of heavy fishing tackle. Luckily, to have great success catching fish, you don’t need to. Nothing adds to the pleasure of being in the wilderness like catching your own dinner.
Fishing with a spinner
With a small collapsible pole and minimal gear you can catch trout with a spinning lure.
Smokey Bear used to warn, “only you can prevent forest fires,” as if the whole dang wilderness were spontaneously com-busting like a drummer from Spinal Tap. Why is it then when you desperately need a cooking fire that even the tiniest hint of moisture makes it seem impossible to light anything, including the frigging match?
Apparently fires when you don’t want them are readily available, yet fires when you do takes some serious coaxing. To increase your burn rate, we offer up a few basic tips to get you fired up.
Fire requires heat, oxygen and fuel. It is most likely to occur when treated as a gradual progression: from ignition source, to tinder, to kindling, to fuel. If you have ever tried to light a log on fire with a match, you understand the difficultly in bypassing the progression.
Ignition starts combustion by providing a burst of heat in the right conditions. The ignition source may be as simple as a friction match or a lighter, it may be as primitive as flint and steel or rubbing sticks together, or it may be as creative as focusing the sun through a magnifying class or touching a 9 volt battery to steel wool. For most of us, a boring match or lighter will do just fine.
Love Me Tinder
Tinder is the high school romance of fire: it starts easily, burn hot, and dies quickly. It is often described as material which can be ignited with a match. The purpose of tinder is to catch the ignition and create a flame hot enough to be transferred to the kindling.
Sources of tinder readily available in the wilderness include leaves, dried grass, and pine needles. Beware that some bark shreds such as redwood may look like great tender but actually contain tannins which naturally protects the tree from fire. That is great news for the tree, but not so great for the tinder. Another enemy of tender is moisture. If it is raining, or has rained recently, you may have to dig to get passed the surface moisture. Some people carry their own backup dry tender, such as laundry lint, in a plastic bag. It burns great and it is more practical than harvesting from your own navel.
Kindling is the next step in our pyro-progression. It is larger than tinder, but smaller than fuel. Kindling is usually made up of small sticks, the diameter of a pencil or finger. It does not catch fire as easily as tinder, but it will burn longer, and is much better at sustaining enough heat and flame to catch our fuel.
Fuel is wood ranging from your finger to your arm. Anything bigger than your arm is probably not appropriate to burn in the wilderness. As a young scout I was taught the politically incorrect saying:
White man make big fire – sit way back, Indian make little fire – sit real close.
When it comes to fires, we were always taught to be Indians. Now days we would probably have to be indigenous people and purchase carbon offsets just for thinking about making a small cooking fire.
There is no right way to construct a fire. Any structure that works will do. Once properly constructed, a good scout can light the fire with 1 match. In fact, if you tell a scout he only get one match, he will probably take much more time in the preparation phase. Or he may just be tempted to soak it with white gas first, so you really got to watch em.
Some common fire structures are the tepee, the log cabin, and the lean-to.
A tepee is sort of a free for all pile. Start with a pile of tinder. Lean kindling size sticks against the pile, with the tips pointed to the center. Continue adding progressively larger sticks until you reach the small fuel size.
Log Cabin Fire
For a log cabin, you start with the kindling size wood. Place two sticks on opposite sides, about 4-6 inches apart. Then stack two more sticks across the other sticks completing the square. Continue stacking opposite parallel layers as if you are making a log cabin. Once you have a reasonably sized box, fill it with a handful of tinder. Place sticks across the top of the cabin, covering the tinder.
In the lean-to you place the tender next to a medium sized log. You then lean the kindling against the log, across the tinder. After multiple layers of tinder, lean several fuel size wood on that.
The Goto Learning Resource for Outdoor Enthusiasts